Monday, September 3, 2012

Marathon Man

In this age of moral equivalence, your inner bad guy is relentlessly held against you — until I do the same thing. And then I get to say a) I am no worse than you, and b) You did it first. It's a push.

So it is that GOP VP candidate Paul Ryan's fact-challenged convention speech is judged on one set of criteria, and his malapropisms on another. On the former, well, he's Romney's running mate, these are the campaign's talking points, and he's just doing his job — reinforcing the message sanctioned by the top half of the ticket. On the latter, well, those are just "Bidenisms."

But then in what seemed like a relaxed moment Ryan inexplicably exaggerated his performance in a marathon some 20 years ago. Yes, one's memory does play tricks, but as these things go (especially for a P90X boot camp guy) claiming you ran a sub three-hour marathon when in fact it took you more than four hours (worse than Sarah Palin's PB, but I digress) takes a little explaining.

The explanation was simple enough, and homey: Oops. Ryan said he got some ribbing around the dinner table, especially from a brother who reminded the candidate that he has the best marathon time in the family.

We could just chalk this up to the kind of loose talk that, frankly, Biden has become rather well known for. But we shouldn't.

For on thing, Biden doesn't lie about himself. Well, not since the 1988 presidential campaign when he plagiarized the speech of a British politician. Biden's MO is to step in it with peculiar word pictures that even his harshest critics don't think are calculated, like suggesting Romney will put a black audience back in chains, and expressing awe of Obama's (ahem) big stick.
Ryan's excesses are more, shall we say, personal. He's a deficit hawk who's namesake budget — the one which made him famous outside the beltway — doesn't balance the budget for decades. He's a budget pragmatist who'd cut revenue by giving disproportionate relief to upper incomes, re-engineer important components of the safety net like Medicare, but whose blueprint can't be scored because it lacks accounting specificity.

And then there is the haplessness of the long distance runner.

I've never run a marathon, but I have done a bicycle century. It wasn't 20 years ago, but 10. I don't remember my exact time, but I have not convinced myself I completed the course in the time of an elite athlete. These are memorable events — they are physically grueling, take hours to complete and are far outside one's daily routine.

Ryan is lying about Obama's adjustment to welfare, and he is telling a peculiar half truth about the president's cut to the growth of medicare (a cut he assumed for his own ambiguous budgeting — and, when, exactly, did Republicans not want to cut Medicare, including Romney and Ryan, today, now?)
These are both matters of fact, as is one's marathon time. But somehow I can't believe Ryan was telling a whopper about his running prowess. Even though the alternative is worse. All kidding aside, a numbers guy who who won't do budget numbers and gets his marathon number wrong is at best careless and cavalier, not wonky.

What we are seeing in Ryan is a sort of Palin redux: A person with the appearance of seriousness and achievement whose principals are platitudes that won't bear up under great scrutiny. And there is no greater scrutiny than in a presidential campaign.

The Democratic attack on Ryan will be — in the Rovian tradition of turning an enemy's strength into his weakness — that Ryan isn't serious, or meticulous. And it will stick now because of a silly boast about an insignificant event before he even entered politics.
Lying on a seemingly unimaginable scale is par for the course in presidential politics now, of course. Republicans touted Bush 43's foreign affairs and defense acumen even though the United States suffered the worst attack in the nation's history on his watch, started a pointless war in Iraq and could not figure out how to win the peace in Afghanistan. Republicans, in this election cycle, are pretending things are worse now than on Jan. 20, 2009, when the stock market was severely depressed, credit markets were frozen and the country was shedding 800,000 jobs a month.

There's little defense when liars can't be shamed. But watch for the Democrats to neutralize Ryan by casting him as just another pit bull, not a philosopher in the league of Obama, Clinton — or even Biden.

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